Weightlifting 101: The Basics

Welcome to the first in a mini series dedicated to providing you with all the tools to be successful in the gym. This post will be geared towards laying your foundation when it comes to understanding the basics of Resistance Training. 

How does Resistance Training Work?

There are 3 main groups of muscles in the body. 

  • Skeletal
  • Cardiac
  • Smooth

Each one of these serves a different function.

  • Skeletal Muscles: These allow you to physically move. Voluntary muscles. 
  • Cardiac muscles: Involuntary. As you can guess, these play a role in the Cardiorespiratory System. Found in the heart
  • Smooth Muscles: Also involuntary. Help to form your organ structure.

For the sake of weightlifting, we will be focusing on the Skeletal Muscles. The skeletal muscles attach to your skeleton via tendons. Basically tendons are elastic collagen tissue that act as a bridge between your muscle and the bone. 

Since Skeletal Muscles are classified as voluntary, they only contract or extend via Neural Activation. This is where your nervous system sends a message to the muscle to perform the contraction.

Specifically in Skeletal Muscles, there are two different Muscle Fiber types. They are different in structure and will react to stimulus in different ways. This is important when you consider the muscle you are training and the training method.

Slow Twitch (Type 1): Smaller muscles that are hard to fatigue. Respond well to long term contractions.

Fast Twitch (Type 2): Larger than slow twitch. Respond well to burst requiring high force in a short time. However, due to less oxygen these tend to fatigue quicker.

Note that your muscles will be composed of both muscle types. But, certain muscles will be comprised in different ratios.

We won’t get too deep into the anatomy of these muscles. But now you know the differences and how they work.

When we put our body under a physical load over time, it tends to react in a manner that makes it easier to perform the same task. This is defined as General Adaptation Syndrome. The adaptation process can be broken down into 3 stages.

  1. Alarm Reaction: Your bodies initial reaction to an unfamiliar stress. Increased oxygen and blood to the area.
  2. Resistance Development: Additional motor units are recruited to help against the load
  3. Exhaustion: Prolonged fatigued that leads to breakdown and or injury

The sweet spot here is to consistently find yourself in Resistance Development and on the fringe of Exhaustion. When you continue to put your muscles under load, the body becomes more efficient in recruiting the muscle fibers. This in turn allows you to lift the weight in the most efficient manner. In addition to muscle recruitment, the repeated breakdown of the muscles will cause them to hypertrophy. This is essentially muscle growth. 

With that being said, to truly see results there has to be a calculated approach to how you are spending time in the gym. 

As with the clients I train, always begin with stretching. This is a crucial part of injury prevention. There are 2 main types of stretching that I recommend before each session. The particular stretches should be geared towards the muscles you are planning to work on that day. 

  1. Static Stretching: This is where you stretch the muscle, and hold that contraction. Especially helpful when you are experiencing tightness. To perform effectively, take the muscle to the contraction point and hold for approximately 30 seconds. This is how long it takes the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) to override the muscle spindle and allow it to relax. Perform 1-3 sets of Static Stretch on the muscle.
  1. Active Stretching: Similar to its Static cousin, the difference being we are taking that muscle through a range of motion. This form of stretching is an effective form of reciprocal inhibition. Essentially where the stretching of one muscle will loosen the opposing muscle (Think biceps/triceps). Perform 1-2 sets at 5-10 repetitions. Holds for 2 seconds each.

The stretching or warm up phase of your workout should not take more than 10 minutes. We just want to prepare your body appropriately before putting it under load.

Resistance sessions for beginners should be focused on compound movements. These are movements that will recruit a large number of muscles together. 

Examples of Compound Movements:

Squats – Hamstrings, Glutes, and Quadriceps

Bench Press – Pectoral Major/Minor, Deltoids, Triceps

Deadlifts – Lats, Glutes, Hamstrings, Forearms

Overhead Press – Deltoids, Triceps, Traps, Pectorals

Barbell Row – Lats, Traps, Forearms, Posterior Deltoids

Together, these exercises form “The Big 5”. These are very popular in the Stronglifts program and should be a staple in any weightlifters diet. By centering your training around these movements, your body will adapt evenly and through Functional Strength. This is strength that transfers to your every day life. Think one trip to bring in the groceries.

Sequence is very important when it comes to your session. Obviously the first exercise you do will be able to tap your full energy reserves. As you get into the accessory work, your muscles will fatigue and not be able to provide the same amount of force. 

This is why you should always begin your workouts with a compound movement. Since they are designed to recruit multiple groups in synchronization, it makes since to do those first when you are at your strongest. 

After our compound movements, we follow with accessory work “aka” isolation exercises. These are movements that are more focused towards specific muscles. Examples below:

Overhead Tricep Extension – Primarily will focus on the tricep. Slight forearm activation.

Dumbbell Curl – Primarily focuses on the bicep. Slight forearm activation.

We follow these after the compound movements because it allows us to safety take our muscles to a point of failure. This is usually where you will experience “The Pump”.

bodybuilding.com does an excellent job of explaining these movements in their video series. I will link a few below for reference. In the next part of this series we will discuss program structure, and how to best gear it towards your fitness goals. 

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